Review: Paul In Fresh Perspective

Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright is based on a series of lectures delivered between 2004 and 2005. His aim, through these lectures, is “to let in some new shafts of light on Paul” (p. ix). He does this by dividing his lectures into two sections: themes found in Paul’s writing, and structures of Paul’s theology. While this book, in part, builds on his previous work on Paul, (notably, What St. Paul Really Said, Climax of the Covenant, and his commentary on Romans), it also points to Wright’s next project, namely the fourth volume in his series, Christian Origins and the Question of God.

In chapter one, Wright introduces the world, or more specifically the worlds, of Paul: Judaism, Hellinism, Rome, and the ekklesia. Wright argues that the narratives of these different worldviews all influenced Paul’s theology and thought, and that the focus in Pauline studies on narrative structures “is one of the most significant developments which the ‘new perspective’ revolution has precipitated” (p.8). Wright briefly outlines the shift from the “old perspective” to the “new perspective” and argues that many of the ideas in modern Pauline scholarship were/are born out of specific cultural and interpretative contexts that are now being evaluated and brought to light. (For example, he talks about how Ephesians and Colossians being seen as pseudo-Pauline arose out of a very specific context: German existentialism).

In chapter two, Wright explores the interconnectedness of the themes of creation and covenant. Building off of Psalms 19 and 74, Wright presents three Pauline texts (Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Cor 15; Romans 1-11) that display the same pattern of fusing creation and covenant together, even when the terms “creation” and “covenant” aren’t specifically referenced in the text. Wright’s thesis is that the Old Testament, and thus Paul in retelling the narrative in light of the work of Christ, portrays God as the creator God who is the covenanting God, and vice versa (p.24).

In chapter three, Wright focuses on the themes of Messiah and the Apocalyptic. He argues that this pairing of themes demonstrates that for Paul, the “apocalypse of the Messiah as Israel’s king and therefore the world’s true Lord challenges…the grand claims of the pagan empire” (p.40). Wright rightly challenges the modern misunderstandings of “Christ” that downplay the Jewishness of Jesus’ title. Wright then looks at the themes of Gospel and Empire in chapter four. Wright argues that not only was Paul discussing the Gospel as fulfillment of Israel’s narrative, but he was also subverting (implicitly and explicitly) the ideology of the Roman Empire (pg. 59).

Wright then shifts from themes in Paul’s writings to the structure or shape of Paul’s theology. Wright critiques previous attempts to structure Paul’s theology, because they ended up emphasizing certain doctrines at the expense (or outright dismissal) of other doctrines. Wright suggests the adoption of a three-fold Jewish framework that would categorize Paul’s theology under “one God,” “one people of God,” and “one future for God’s world”, and then tweaking it to focus on the Messiah and the Holy Spirit (p.84). Chapters five, six and seven look at each of the three aspects in turn, and these chapters form the beginning sketches of Paul’s exploration of the Christological and pneumatological foci of each category.

In his concluding chapter, Wright looks at some of the corollary questions that arise from his proposed restructuring of Paul’s theology. First, Wright examines the supposed dichotomy or polarization between Jesus’ message and Paul’s message. Wright argues that both Jesus and Paul saw the world through the same set of themes (as explored in chapters two through four), but their functions were different.  Paul was not attempting to modify or better Jesus’ theology, instead Paul saw his role as being the conductor who simply conducts the music written by the composer, that is, Jesus (p.155). But, if this is the case, Wright asks, what should be done about the apparent discrepancies between Jesus and Paul, in areas like teachings on the Kingdom of God, justification by faith, and Christian ethics? Wright, briefly explores each of the issues and concludes that the solution lies in understanding that Jesus and Paul had two different vocations that served the same over-arching vision (p.161).

While this book has a very conversational tone, and is aimed at more of a general rather than an academic audience, Wright would have been better to have offered more endnotes with references and clarifications to help the reader along. As well, the endnotes that merely reference Scripture should have been changed to parenthetical references to make it easier for the reader who has to continuously flip from the chapter to the endnotes at the back of the book. In terms of Wright’s overall presentation of his perspective on Paul, a reader who is familiar with Wright’s more academic works would understand the summaries and overviews that he gives, but for the reader who is unfamiliar with Wright, the summary nature of Wright’s arguments may actually be overwhelming and disorienting.  As someone who has read Wright, I found his chapter on messiahship to be a good review of his fuller discussions of messiahship as found in Jesus and the Victory of God. On the other hand, his chapter on Paul and Empire was actually confusing instead of clarifying, and as such readers would be better off reading his essay “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire.” That being said, this book serves as a way for evangelicals to re-read Paul with new insights, and to understand the narratives that Paul is using and retelling in his presentation of the Gospel.

Given the introductory nature of these “shafts of light,” and given that the book is written to a general, rather than academic audience, I would suggest that judgment and evaluation of Wright’s re-thinking of Paul be held in reserve until the more complete volume is released. The danger in critiquing Wright at this stage is that, because Wright does not set out to “prove” his re-thinking but rather to gather people together to begin to re-think with him, the reader is in danger of attributing issues or implications to Wright that may or not actually be indicative of Wright’s thought.

As a theologian, I find Wright’s suggested structure for exploring Paul’s theology to be both intriguing and useful, especially in a post-modern context that has moved, and is moving, away from the modernistic structures of systematic (particularly Reformed) theologies. I would suggest that Wright’s proposal could be the beginning of a bridge between biblical studies and theology, and specifically between the fields of biblical theology and systematic theology, especially if there was a way to subsume the systematic categories under the broader structure that Wright proposes.

Enhanced by Zemanta
  • TC Robinson

    I’ve read this work. I remain an admirer of the writings of Wright, but he is often engaged in too many overstatements and historical negligence. Hopefully in his much anticipated work on Paul in his Christian Origins series he can remove some of the confusions. We’ll see. ;-)

  • Pingback: Book Reviews (January-February, 2013) | Near Emmaus